Making SharePoint Social

Average reading time: about 9 minutes.

This is an excerpt from a recent strategy designed for a company faced with the migration of a large and disparate collection of internal sites, web-based tools and an intranet. As with many organisations, their IT department have mandated SharePoint as the platform to use.

As Subject Matter Experts, they’d performed a great job evaluating the what; categorising, reviewing and updating content, and they’d evaluated the different tools and functions still needed.

So, we focused on the how; strategic and tactical ideas to make ‘SharePoint sing’…

 1. Designing from Data

What are the ‘Jobs to be Done’?

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Jobs to be Done [1] is Clayton Christensen (et al)’s technique for evaluating products and services by examining what customers really ‘hire’ a product to do, rather than the preconception of its designers.

Using data from click analysis and User interviews, ‘Jobs to be Done’ is an incredibly effective methodology in unearthing the true priorities of websites.

Find the ‘cow paths’

‘Cow paths’ are the informal ‘short cuts’ people take to get to information in a site, subverting carefully designed ‘official’ organisational and information hierarchies.

Tracking User activity and basic research (calling people up, micro-surveys, etc.) helps reveal these otherwise hidden interactions in websites.

For an organisation, these unexpected short cuts reveal unintended use of tools, undiscovered ‘Jobs to be Done’, process workarounds, and even just straightforward misunderstandings.

RoI = Return on Attention

It may be difficult to assess ‘intranet’-type projects by traditional RoI measures.

A key metric could be ‘Return on Attention'[2] – how effectively the new site delivers information and connects employees to processes and expertise, measured against the time spent using the site.

Return on Attention provides:

  • A qualitative measure to frame technical and design decisions.
  • A quantitive metric to measure improvements gained from the previous site.

2. Designing for People (and their devices)

Designing for tablets and phones

Tablet and Phone screens display less. This creates two challenges:


  • How flexible is the planned web site implementation in terms of handling current mobile devices?
  • How will the site support future unknown devices and browsers?


  • Tablets and Phones have changed people’s expectations of how websites work, where and how they can be accessed.
  • How should the attention model differ for Users on tablets and phones?

At a minimum, the technical challenge can be solved by using web standards and practicing ‘responsive page design’ (make this page narrower to see this in action), so that future unknown devices and screen resolutions are supported.

An advanced approach would be designing page structure and content to support the context of tablet and phone usage.

Should pages initially display less content to people? If yes, what should the editorial strategy be? Should time-saving cowpaths be explicitly displayed to mobile users? Which, if any, functions in the site could be PC-only? What sort of sharing services could be built into pages?

Taking cues from Service Design

Service Designers worry about end-to-end product and service experiences, from ‘opening the box’, to the last support call.

A service design approach is a useful framing technique for analysing the end-to-end experience of an employee, ensuring internal websites integrate in a ‘joined up’ way.

It’s tough to solve this for every process or tool in a website, but discovering the ‘cow-paths’ and using a ‘Jobs to be Done’ methodology, key areas in a site can be identified and prioritised for a integrated User experience.

Making search social

Search should be one of the primary interfaces and a key technical consideration of the project.

SharePoint 2010 has great search capabilities that reveal relevant documents and pages, but other social data should also ‘sit around’ the search results:

Social activity
Displaying simple ‘social activity’ data such as the number of shares, favourites, etc. for pages and documents, adds ‘social proof’ and extra context to people assessing the relevancy of search results.

Using a ‘Jobs to be Done’ lens, search results should expose experts, as well as pages and documents.

As with pages and documents, displaying people’s activity (their comments, access, favouriting, sharing) in profiles linked from search results, provides additional ‘social proof’ to evaluate both someone’s expertise and importantly, their accessibility.

Displaying ‘Time to read’

Assuming a core RoI metric is ‘Return on Attention’, then it’s useful to both display and measure time spent using the site.

Display reading time
Build a server-side analysis of page content [3], and publish ‘estimated time to read’ icons into pages, setting Users’ expectations and helping them manage their time on the site.

Measure reading time
Most web analytics will track the display time of web pages. Extend this by aggregating this data across the sets of pages and workflows that make up the ‘Jobs to be Done’ identified for the site.

3. Designing SharePoint to…share

SharePoint as the core, with social apps as layers

SharePoint is a great document, workflow and publishing platform, but its default ‘social’ User experience is poor [4].

An effective strategy is to treat SharePoint as a ‘core engine’, with specific customisations or apps delivering an engaging social ‘layer’.

These ‘layers’ can be customisations, plugins or entire ‘social’ platforms like Jive [5].


Hubs are a collection of pages and resources, formed around a core ‘social object’ – Events, People, Topics.

Hubs can be:

  • news-like; up-to-date ‘timelines’ of stories and resources built around a subject or event.
  • manually assembled by editors around a key topic or event.
  • automatically generated from page relevancy, or people’s activity.

Topics as Hubs

Topic Hubs are hand-curated, regularly reviewed pages that give Users clear paths and actions for a certain topic, ‘Job to be Done’ or process.

One of the key challenges for the migration of any intranet or corporate site is the sheer quantity of pages that are low traffic, but still have relevancy to certain Users, usually via bookmarks, forgotten links or appearing in specialised search results.

Rather than spend significant effort maintaining this old(er), infrequently accessed content, build a function that automatically displays prominent links to relevant Topic Hubs.

This ensures Users are a click away from the most important, and most up-to-date information, regardless of which page they access.

People as hubs

People are motivated by recognition and curiosity.

If people see activity from colleagues and employees they recognise, they are more likely to engage around those actions.

Displaying a User’s public activity (favourites, checked out documents, etc) creates a compelling ‘activity stream’; their actions drive other Users to the same content and outcomes – amplifying the ‘Return on Attention’ from a single User.

Leaders as Hubs…caution

Relying on Leaders to create ‘flow’ can be problematic.

Whilst Leaders should be encouraged and supported – at all levels – to contribute, it’s unwise to rely on them exclusively to generate ongoing ‘flow’ and interest in a site, as they are often too busy to provide ongoing activity, inadvertently leading to highly visible, barren areas of a site.

Experiences and events as Hubs

A shared experience, such as a training event, gives employees from different areas of a business a reason to pay attention and congregate around an Event Hub, even after the event has passed.

New starters can be connected to Hubs that connect them to potential mentors and more seasoned employees, regardless of business area.

These Hubs can be built our of the basic elements of SharePoint+social feeds – it’s a compelling way to amplify the use and usefulness, of SharePoint.


[1] Clayton Christensen is a ‘big thinker’ from Harvard Business School (Innovator’s Dilemma, etc). One of his ‘lens’ in which to assess business performance and potential is ‘Jobs to be Done’. Forbes has a great intro to this approach, and there are a highly accessible set of podcasts covering practical examples. Also recommended is Ryan Singer’s fantastic discussion of using Jobs to be Done for web applications.

[2] For more on Return on Attention, see: – although this is focused around Training Department objectives, the principles are broad enough to be applied in this context.

[3] A great example of using time-to-read in a webpage is from iA:

[4] This is often a position that needs to be staked out early on. Often, IT – using a checklist feature comparison – won’t recognise the nuance and differentiation of user experience, arguing SharePoint does it all, already. Of course from a checklist comparison, a Rolls Royce is the same as a Yugo…

[5] For more details on ‘social layers’ for SharePoint, see: